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First-Year Coaching Phenoms
The NFL's rookie coaching class of 2008 was a starless group. A longtime special teams coach got the job in Baltimore. A little-known defensive coordinator took over in Atlanta. A line coach deep in Bill Parcells's shadow in Dallas became part of his mentor's rebuilding project in Miami. And an old scrambling quarterback with no experience as a head coach or coordinator replaced Joe Gibbs in Washington.
The returns have been surprisingly good. That foursome was a combined 20--12 through Sunday, and three of the teams were over .500. Here's how each coach has made a difference.
John Harbaugh, Ravens. It's not easy to come in as the new sheriff of a team dominated by a high-achieving, veteran defensive core. Harbaugh was smart. He told the players that every decision would be based on what they did now, not on their reputations, and that he wouldn't shy away from lineup changes. He asserted control by running a much harder training camp than predecessor Brian Billick, though players groused about it. He also benched three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister in Week 7. "We've had two two-hour conversations in the last few days," Harbaugh said last week of McAlister, who'd been a starter since early in his rookie year of 1999. "I'm always going to tell players just where they stand."
Mike Smith, Falcons. In his first week on the job, the former Jaguars coordinator walked through the practice facility and introduced himself to each of the team's estimated 160 employees. His predecessor, Bobby Petrino, never met three quarters of those people. "This is not my team," Smith told employee after employee. "This is our team." In April he and new general manager Thomas Dimitroff ignored the crying need for defense in the first round and chose Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan and USC left tackle Sam Baker. Both look as if they'll be fixtures in Atlanta. So does Smith.
Tony Sparano, Dolphins. As the team flew east after a 21-point loss at Arizona in Week 2, Sparano decided the playbook needed a jolt. He installed a scheme that his quarterbacks coach, David Lee, had used in 2007 as the offensive play-caller at Arkansas—Lee sometimes called for direct snaps to Darren McFadden to make defenses deal with McFadden and fellow tailback Felix Jones (both of whom would be 2008 first-round picks) on the same play. "We wanted to get [running backs] Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, two of our best players, on the field at once," Sparano said. The Dolphins' Wildcat formation accounted for four touchdowns the next Sunday in a 38--13 rout of New England.
Jim Zorn, Redskins. Team owner Dan Snyder wanted a superb quarterbacks coach to work with his 2005 first-round pick, Jason Campbell. Zorn, who had excelled in that role with the Seahawks, vowed he'd work one-on-one with Campbell for at least an hour a day, every day, building the confidence and independence a quarterback needs to succeed. In training camp that commitment was more like three hours a day, Zorn teaching and watching and cajoling. The dedication has paid off. Through eight weeks Campbell was the league's fifth-rated quarterback, with zero interceptions in 230 attempts. He'd thrown for more yards than Brett Favre and had a better completion percentage than Peyton Manning. Campbell's first-half play is the biggest reason the Redskins are challenging for their division—just one of the many surprises in a turbulent 2008.